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Somerset County Residents Fight Back Against Expanding Chicken Industry

By: Claire Fitch

This post was co-written by Michele Merkel and Claire Fitch and co-posted in Food & Water Watch.

Somerset County has been in the cross hairs of the poultry industry for quite a long time, with an inventory of 14.9 million broiler chickens – the largest of any county in Maryland, and the sixth largest in the United States. Big companies, including Perdue and Tyson own these birds, which are raised in large industrial facilities for their entire lives, and produce enormous quantities of waste. With nowhere to put the tens of millions of pounds of manure generated by these birds, the county is now considering poultry litter incinerators while continuing to entertain proposals to build a number of new broiler chicken operations.

Last week, public health scientists, environmental advocates, and local residents joined together for a Town Hall meeting at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to express their concerns with the proposed expansion of factory farm chicken operations and the construction of a poultry litter incinerator in Somerset County on the lower Eastern Shore.

Speakers at the Town Hall meeting gave us a snapshot of the public health and community impacts that may result from the expansion of broiler production and the introduction of manure burning facilities.

Brent Kim from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future spoke about the evidence of chemical contaminants and harmful bacteria, including antibiotic resistant strains, in and around broiler operations. These health hazards have been identified several miles downwind from such operations and may be carried into groundwater sources – particularly concerning for the 60 percent of Somerset County’s residents who access their household water supply from private wells.

When it comes to respiratory hazards and harmful bacteria, workers in broiler operations bear the brunt of exposure, and may transport those bacteria to their families and communities. Evidence from Brent’s presentation is summarized in a CLF letter to the Somerset County Health Officer, which details the public health concerns associated with industrial broiler production.

Maria Payan from the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project put a personal face on the issues by talking about the adverse health and social impacts her family has experienced in Pennsylvania from neighboring industrial poultry and hog operations.

Carole Morison, a farmer from Worcester County, Maryland, and former owner of an industrial broiler operation, talked about how the environmental, animal welfare, and public health issues associated with industrial livestock production caused her to change her mind and break away from the system. She is now fighting a proposal to site a large industrial broiler operation next to her pasture-based farm, which she fears could threaten the health of her family and her hens. As Carole pointed out, developers with no ties to the land or the community are increasingly constructing these mega-facilities with only one concern: to unsustainably squeeze as many chicken houses onto their plot of land as possible.

Somerset residents shared that they are not only concerned about increased density of broiler complexes but also about the state-supported plan to site a poultry litter incinerator in the county. At the Town Hall, I (Merkel) spoke about the 2013 contract between the State of Maryland and Green Planet Power to build a poultry litter incinerator in Somerset County. The state is billing litter incineration as the silver bullet to manage the 238,000 tons of excess litter produced by the poultry industry every year. This waste is often applied to croplands as fertilizer in excess of what crops can absorb, so it ends up running off of the land and polluting groundwater, waterways, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Far from being a silver bullet, litter incineration would provide another potential health risk for the residents of Somerset County, who already have some of the poorest health outcomes in the state of Maryland. Litter incineration does not eliminate waste completely, as chemicals and heavy metals from the litter can be dispersed in the air via incineration or left in the ash. Air emissions inventories from the only poultry litter incinerator in the country reveal that these facilities produce as much, or more, toxic emissions than Maryland’s coal plants. Many of the pollutants—including dioxins, nitrogen and sulfur oxides—have been associated with cancer, respiratory problems and adverse reproductive outcomes.

Allison Gost from the Maryland Institute of Environmental Health announced that she and several colleagues are currently evaluating the potential health effects of a poultry litter incinerator and the disparate impacts it may have on the Somerset community.

Perhaps even more disturbing are the environmental justice implications of the incineration siting. Dr. Kirkland Hall, Chairman of the Democratic Central Committee in Somerset County, talked about how it is not coincidental that Somerset County is home to many industrial facilities; it has the lowest average household income of any county in Maryland with the highest unemployment and cancer rates in Maryland. It is also 48 percent African American.

So what can the citizens of Somerset do?

Local officials have an obligation under state law to protect the health, public safety and general welfare of the community, and they also have the authority to control, and or reject, the siting of a broiler complex or an incinerator. A few citizens have already appeared before the Somerset Planning Commission to voice their concerns. In response, the Commission agreed to review the local ordinances that govern poultry operations to establish whether they are protective of public health.

The next meeting before the Planning Commission is on May 7. If citizens share the concerns outlined above, this meeting provides an opportunity to defend their democratic right of self-determination and to protect their health and community. In addition, we encourage citizens to call their local health department, Planning Commissioners and their County Commissioners to lodge their concerns.

Somerset County should not be a dumping and burning ground for the profit-seeking poultry industry and outside corporate investors. The community deserves a better future that provides living wage jobs and a clean and healthy environment.

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